The last word of the book of Daniel

A grammatical mistake or a conscious choice?

Artur Stele, PhD, serves as a vice president for the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Silver Spring, Maryland, United States.

It is not news to students of the Bible that the book of Daniel was written in two ancient languages, Hebrew and Aramaic. Daniel starts the book in Hebrew but, beginning with Daniel 2:4, he shifts to Aramaic and continues in it until the end of chapter 7. Then, beginning with chapter 8, he resumes in Hebrew. However, when it comes to the very last word of the book, we discover something interesting. Daniel starts the last word in Hebrew but adds to it an Aramaic ending. It appears as if in the last word, he tries to connect the two languages employed in the book. Some scholars have argued that Daniel was probably tired and just by mistake connected the two languages, something easily done by people proficient in two or more languages. However, the big question remains: Could it be that Daniel intentionally added an Aramaic plural ending to a Hebrew word?

This article will try to demonstrate that this was a deliberate and intelligent choice which has highly significant theological implications for the interpretation of the time references of the twelfth chapter of Daniel.

Why the two languages?

Before considering the very last word of Daniel’s book, we need to try to answer the question regarding why he needed to use two languages in the same book and determine whether we, today, can learn practical lessons from it.

The bilingualism of the book of Daniel is not unique in the Old Testament. The same phenomenon is found in the book of Ezra. Ezra 4:8–6:18 and 7:12–26 are written in Aramaic, while the rest of the book is written in Hebrew. However, the explanation of the usage of two languages in Ezra is much more obvious and has not generated a bulk of different views. The Aramaic portions of the book of Ezra mainly contain letters and documents that were originally written in Aramaic, and the author decided not to translate them but, rather, presented them in the original language. Since most of those returning from the Babylonian captivity understood the Aramaic language, it was very appropriate to cite letters and documents in the original language.1

When it comes to the book of Daniel, the explanation of the use of two languages is much more complicated. The transition in Daniel 2:4 from Hebrew to Aramaic seems very natural: “Then the Chaldeans said to the king in Aramaic, “O king, live forever! Tell your servants the dream, and we will show the interpretation” (ESV). At the first gaze, it seems that Daniel uses the same approach Ezra was using, namely providing the direct speech in the language it was originally spoken. One would expect that Daniel, after actually quoting the words of the Chaldeans, would return to Hebrew. However, Daniel continues in Aramaic all the way to the end of chapter 7, even after the topic has completely changed, transitioning to the Hebrew language only at the beginning of chapter 8.

Possible and plausible explanations

Since there is not a simple, obvious way of explaining the usage of the two languages, many explanations have been offered.2 For example, some have suggested that the book naturally falls into two parts: part one is a narrative, mostly consisting of stories, and the second part is a prophetic section. Consequently, Daniel chose to write the two sections in two different languages. However, this argument does not work at all because both sections employ both languages. The narrative section starts in Hebrew but ends in Aramaic, and the prophetic section starts in Aramaic but continues in Hebrew.

Others have suggested that the entire book of Daniel was originally composed in Aramaic and then translated into Hebrew. Based on this theory, what we have today in Aramaic is the original language, and what we have in Hebrew has survived only in translation. However, the discovery of the Daniel manuscripts among the Dead Sea Scrolls argues strongly against such a theory. The Qumran Scrolls 1QDana, 4QDana, and 4QDanb contain the same shift from Hebrew to Aramaic and back to Hebrew.3 In these scrolls, more than 1,000 years older than the Masoretic text, the transition from one language to the other and back occurs exactly in the places where it does in the Masoretic text.4

Interpreters have suggested additional explanations for the existence of the two languages. Mainly, they try to point to different authors who wrote parts of the book later compiled by an editor. However, a number of scholars have convincingly argued for the book’s unity.5 They have persuasively demonstrated a unified structure of the whole book as well as a definite thematic unity.

The most reasonable explanation of the bilingualism is the fact that the Aramaic language was the lingua franca of Daniel’s time. It was the official language of the Babylonian and Persian Empires, while Hebrew was Daniel’s native language as well as that of the people of Israel. Daniel used the Hebrew language for the message that was directed more to God’s covenant people, and for the one intended for the whole world, he employed the common international language of the era. As Gleason Archer states, “A careful study of the subject matter yields fairly obvious answers: The Aramaic chapters deal with matters pertaining to the entire citizenry of the Babylonian and the Persian empires, whereas the other six chapters relate to peculiarly Jewish concerns and God’s special plans for the future of his covenant people.”6

If this reasoning is right, it provides us with insight as we proclaim God’s truth to the world. We should let the Lord guide us in what topics we should choose to broadcast to the whole world using all available modern media and what topics we should emphasize when we speak to those who are already Christ’s followers.

Why an Aramaic plural ending?

The very last Hebrew word of the book of Daniel is unique because of its Aramaic plural ending and because of its strong eschatological context. Naturally, it puzzles students of the book. Why does Daniel add to a Hebrew word an Aramaic ending? As noted previously, some have interpreted it as simply a copyist’s mistake. However, we have to keep in mind the following two facts: First, the Aramaic plural ending has the full support of the Hebrew textual tradition. Second, “the commonest cause of copyists’ errors” is an interchange of letters that look alike, but the final Hebrew letters “nun” and “mem” are quite different.7

The remaining option for understanding the phenomenon of the last word in the book of Daniel is to conclude that Daniel intentionally created a word that combines both the Hebrew and Aramaic languages. If that is the case, what purpose would Daniel achieve, and what significance would it have for his readers?

Two possibilities

I would like to suggest two possibilities. First of all, since Daniel used the two languages throughout the book, the combination of the two languages in the very final word would send a signal to the readers that it was one writer who authored both parts of the book. The final word, in a way, underlines the unity of the Hebrew and Aramaic sections of Daniel.

Second, but no less important, the prophet attempts, through the last word, to safeguard the readers from a wrong interpretation of the text. If Daniel would use a normal and expected Hebrew ending to the Hebrew word for “days,” it would significantly alter the meaning. One naturally asks, when will the promised resurrection of Daniel actually occur? At the end of which days? Looking at the context of Daniel 12:13, the reader will quickly realize that the text immediately preceding (v. 12) refers to the blessing given those who will reach the 1,335 days. Here, for “days” Daniel employs a Hebrew word with a Hebrew plural ending.

If, in the very next verse, Daniel used the same Hebrew word with the same Hebrew plural ending that he used in Daniel 12:12, the reader would conclude that the phrase which follows—“at the end of the days” (referring to the 1,335 days)—points to the very end of the 1,335 days. It would mean that the promised resurrection will occur at the end of the 1,335 days. That would seem to support those advocating a futuristic approach to the interpretation of the eschatological prophecies. However, the usage of an Aramaic ending to the Hebrew word for “days” differentiates it from the 1,335 days. It is also significant to note that in verse 13, Daniel adds to the word “days” a definite article, which additionally points to the special “end” of the days and supports a differentiation from the 1,335 days.8

Furthermore, Daniel may have chosen an Aramaic ending to the otherwise Hebrew word to direct our attention to the Aramaic portion of the book for a better understanding of the final phrase “at the end of the days.” In fact, in several instances in the Aramaic portion of the book, the word “days” appears in the masculine, plural, and emphatic form, similar to the usage in Daniel 12:139 (for example, Daniel 2:28 and 2:44). The empathic state in Daniel 2:28 is expressed through a definite article and in Daniel 2:44 through the pronominal suffix. The context of both passages clearly refers to the “days” when the God of heaven will destroy all earthy kingdoms and establish His own, one that will last forever. The “days” of Daniel 2:44 refer to the very last period of the “latter days” of Daniel 2:28.

Significantly, we observe a further connection between Daniel 2:44 and Daniel 12:13 through the double usage in Daniel 2:44 of the key resurrection term of Daniel 12:13. The technical term for resurrection in Daniel 12:13 is the Hebrew word amad, which means “to stand, to rise.” The Aramaic equivalent for the Hebrew amad is qum, which has the same meaning: “to stand, to rise.” Thus, it seems highly probable that there is indeed a relationship between Daniel 12:13 and Daniel 2:44. Consequently, it seems evident that “the end of the days” of Daniel 12:13 refers not back to the 1,335 days in Daniel 12:12 but to the very last period of the “latter days,” namely to the time period when the Lord of heaven will establish His own kingdom.

Two audiences and a distinct intention

The usage of two languages in the book of Daniel is best explained as Daniel’s attempt to speak to two different audiences. He wrote the message primarily addressed to the people of Israel in the Hebrew language and the one intended for the entire world in Aramaic, the lingua franca of the day. Thus, learning from Daniel, as we preach today, we should give careful consideration to what we should primarily present to those already inside the church and what message will be best understood by the people outside it. If we preach in a language not well comprehended and present a message not well understood, we might miss the mark.

The last word in the book of Daniel that starts in the Hebrew language but ends with an Aramaic plural ending is also best understood as a conscious choice on the author’s part. Thus, what at first glance seemingly appears to be a grammatical mistake, in reality, after careful consideration of all nuances, points to a deliberate and carefully thought-through decision by the author with significant theological implications. It suggests that the book of Daniel represents unity, the work of one author, and, at the same time, differentiates the event of the resurrection mentioned in Daniel 12:13 from the reference to the time period of 1,335 days in Daniel 12:12. Thus, the resurrection of Daniel10 will occur not at the end of 1,335 days but at the time when the God of heaven will destroy all the earthly kingdoms and establish His own kingdom, one that will last forever.

  1. Edwin M. Yamauchi, Ezra-Nehemiah, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 4, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1988), 586, 587.
  2. For different views, see Anathea E. Portier-Young, “Languages of Identity and Obligation: Daniel as Bilingual Book,” VT 60 (2010), 98–115.
  3. Gerhard F. Hasel, “New Light on the Book of Daniel From the Dead Sea Scrolls,” Ministry, January 1992, 10–13.
  4. Gerhard F. Hasel, “The Book of Daniel Confirmed by the Dead Sea Scrolls,” Journal of the Adventist Theological Society 1/2 (1990): 43. See also J. Paul Tanner, Daniel, Evangelical Exegetical Commentary, ed. H. W. House and W. D. Barrick (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2020), 5.
  5. Gleason L. Archer, Daniel, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 7, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1985), 4–6; Tanner, Daniel, 1–5; Jacques B. Doukhan, Daniel: The Vision of the End (Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University Press, 1987), 3–6; William H. Shea, “Unity of Daniel,” in Symposium on Daniel, Daniel and Revelation Committee Series, vol. 2, ed. F. B. Holbrook (Washington, DC: Biblical Research Institute, 1986), 165–255.
  6. Archer, Daniel, 7: 6. See also Tanner, Daniel, 4.
  7. Ernst Wurthwein, The Text of the Old Testament: An Introduction to Kittel-Kahle’s Biblia Hebraica, trans. Peter R. Ackroyd (New York, NY: Macmillan, 1957), 72.
  8. Artur A. Stele, “Resurrection in Daniel 12 and Its Contribution to the Theology of the Book of Daniel” (PhD diss., Andrews University, 1996), 180–182; Bruce William Jones, “Ideas of History in the Book of Daniel” (PhD diss., Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, 1972), 210. See also Gerhard Pfandl, “The Time of the End in the Book of Daniel,” Adventist Theological Society Dissertation Series, no. 1 (Berrien Springs, MI: Adventist Theological Society Publications, 1992), 255, 314.
  9. Hans Bauer and Pontus Leander, Grammatik des Biblisch-Aramaischen (Hildesheim, Germany: Olms Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1962), 84; Hans Bauer and Pontus Leander, Kurzgefasste BiblischAramaische Grammatik mit Texten und Glossar (Halle: Max Niemeyer Verlag, 1929), 9; Alger F. Johns, A Short Grammar of Biblical Aramaic, Andrews University Monographs, no. 1 (Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University Press, 1966), 9, 10; Stanislav Segert, Altaramaische Grammatik mit Bibliographie, Chrestomathie und Glossar (Leipzig, Germany: VEB Verlag Enzyklopadie, 1975), 188–192; Franz Rosenthal, A Grammar of Biblical Aramaic (Wiesbaden, Germany: Otto Harrassowitz, 1974), 23.
  10. Stele argues that the prophet in Daniel 12:13 stands as a representative for a general resurrection. “Resurrection in Daniel 12,” 201–212.

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